Dealing with Your
Pet’s Terminal Illness
PhD Natural Health, LMSW-ACP
This month’s newsletter is very special and close to my heart. Bean is now in the end stage of renal failure and I have been on an emotional roller coaster dealing with his terminal illness. As each new symptom develops, I find myself filled with fear. Doug Koktavy has helped me get through these hard times with his own experience of terminal illness with his two Labradors, Boomer and Beezer. With Doug’s guidance, extraordinary insight and kindness, I have been able to take each day as it comes and make each minute, hour and day more positive for both me and the Bean. Doug has graciously offered permission to use his “Fear” excerpt from his book for the August B-Natural’s newsletter. I am looking very forward to reading his book when it is published. Doug’s writing is very powerful and offers comfort and useful strategies for dealing with this very difficult time, which we all face at some time or another. Thank you so much Doug!
Doug’s website is: www.dougandthebbrothers.com
Part 1: Presence
I was a complete basket case when my beloved Black Labrador, Beezer, was diagnosed with early stage kidney disease. The disease ultimately took his life on May 1, 2005 at age nine. Looking back, so much of that journey during his illness was consumed by FEAR. My fear for my dog, my fear for the journey, my fear for my own life after Beezer passed. It was a numbing to the bone kind of fear attendant to massive uninvited life changes. I progressively grew more depressed and unable to complete even simple day-to-day tasks. I spent my time in search of better doctors and better treatments, but most of all, I spent virtually every waking hour in paralyzing fear.
Beezer became my teacher during this time. He and I came to explore the nature of fear and soon developed strategies to cope with this emotion. Beezer never got better, but we learned how to enjoy each day together. I refined these lessons when his brother, Boomer, contracted bone cancer just over a year later. Looking back, my Journey with my trusty Labs was a grand success. Our relationship was never better than the time during their illnesses. Beezer and Boomer taught me how to not be afraid.
I realized that my two biggest problems were deeply ingrained with my concept of time—past, present and future. I would second guess and relive past decisions under the various headings of “Why didn’t I try this before,” ”If only_____,” and, my personal favorite, “It’s my fault because_____.” These episodes were simply my ego talking to me. My ego was infecting me with guilt over something that happened before. I decided that to feel guilty is nothing more than to live in the past.
Moreover, to live in fear is to live in the future. In the beginning, the dogs would watch in silent amazement as I rushed about obsessing over things that hadn’t even happened. “How much time do we have?” “What if this happens in a week?” The problem with this thinking was that my fixation over the future caused me to ignore today. The key, I decided, was to avoid living in both the past and the future. I called this presence.
Presence is simply living in the moment. This proved to be a bit easier said than done.
Part 2: To Fear is to Fuel
I began to think about the goal of a fatal disease. What did it want? Was I an accomplice, a victim, a witness? It had to be something. The easy response was “The disease wants to kill Beezer.” However, is that really the goal?
I certainly understand that I will die someday from something. I also understood that Beezer would die someday from something. If so, then what does the fatal disease bring to the table that wasn’t there yesterday? It cannot be death, because I understand that if you are born, you die. It is our contract from birth.
My answer was that the disease wanted me to give up today (the here and now). It’s just that simple. The goal of a fatal disease is to get me to give up today. The disease accomplishes that goal through the infection of fear into me.
Today should be so very special because of the disease. I should cherish today as never before. Did I? Of course not. I was too busy living in fear of the future. A future that didn’t exist today. A mirage in my mind. That was the goal of the disease. To plant the mirage and convince me to live in the future.
Now the sneaky part of the disease is that it couldn’t rob me of today. It couldn’t take today away from me over my objection. It wasn’t that powerful. No, the disease had to trick me into giving up today. I would have this wonderful precious asset in my hands, today, and simply hand it over on a silver platter to the embezzler of today, the disease. I’d forfeit today to the con man, as if to say, “Here, you take today, I don’t want it. I can’t deal with today.” Imagine that.
I realized my fear of the disease was the fuel that was being used against me. Devilishly clever, my biggest enemy was not the disease, but ME!. I was the power source being used to generate the very negative energy destroying my own being and wasting a special day with my beloved dog.
This paradox was glaring. I had thought the growing presence of disease was causing my mounting fear. In fact, just the opposite was occurring. My daily increasing fear was causing the disease to grow and become more powerful. I decided it was high time to start working for me and the Beez, not against us.
Part 3: The Power of Meaning
Ever been stuck in traffic? Three lanes and nobody moving? I looked around once and was puzzled by what I saw. One person was laying on the horn, mouthing single syllable sentences punctuated by decisive gestures. One car over, another person was quietly singing a song of apparent significance. Both persons had the same incoming message–stopped traffic–but both persons attached a completely different meaning to the message. I wondered if I could apply that to my situation with Beezer?
I decided that incoming messages are neutral. That is, an incoming message means absolutely nothing until the listener attaches a meaning. Up to now, I’d been attaching fear as the meaning to every incoming message concerning Beezer. I decided to create different meanings to these same incoming messages.
I already knew the past (guilt) and the future (fear) were dangerous places for me. My strategy would be to create mechanisms and meanings which would keep me present. My safe zone was today. Whatever meaning I attached to the diseases had to allow me to remain present. I would starve the diseases of fuel because they cannot live in the present. I created three strategies.
Strategy #1: Permanent Time-Out
The disease was part of our lives. I couldn’t change that. I couldn’t pretend the illness wasn’t here. I had to deal with it, but I needed a way to relate to the disease on terms I could understand. I decided to give the disease a character.
I found an old “kiddie chair.” I wrote “Kidney Disease Time Out Chair” on a piece of paper and glued it to the chair. I then placed the chair in a prominent place in my house. I then invited the disease to stay, but informed the disease that there were going to be several rules:
1. The disease could never again speak to me again without my permission. The disease could hold up signs like “Can I scare you today?” but planting words in my head was out.
2. The disease could stay in our lives as long as it wanted, but it was restricted to the permanent time-out chair. We were busy enjoying today and would try to make time for the disease later. So just sit tight and we’ll get back to you.
3. The disease had to wear pink fuzzy slippers. Nothing on this planet is scary when sitting on a kiddie chair wearing pink fuzzy slippers. They play their games, I play mine.
I found the strategy helpful. The fact that the chair was out in the open was especially powerful because it reinforced my ability to control fear on a daily basis. Once, when feeling a bit scared, I composed myself and announced in a stern voice: “WHO SAID YOU COULD LEAVE THE TIME-OUT CHAIR?” It worked. I giggled and went back to my dog.
Strategy #2: The Daily Point
Later on, Boomer helped me develop a game to deal with fear. As guys, we relish games where scores are kept and winners and losers determined. We created a game called the Daily Point. Here’s how it worked.
Every day, one single point was up for grabs. Either Boomer and I would get the point or Team Fear (now with a second kiddie chair) would get the point. One day, one point. There weren’t ties and we never had overtime. We had much fun every day with this game.
Each day we’d awake and Boomer and I would discuss how we were going to win today’s point. Nothing else mattered. Even on the bad days, we’d stubbornly refuse to give in to fear for the simple reason that we didn’t want to lose today’s point. We became obsessed with enjoying today and never looking further than how to win “the point.”
Strategy #3: The Daily Appreciation
As Beezer grew more ill, I’d speak with him and give him my permission and blessing if he wanted to transition on his own. I didn’t want him pushing beyond his time because of my selfish need to hang on. We started having these talks at night just before bedtime.
I also realized that Beezer might prefer to pass on his own, out of my presence. Of course, that could mean I might come home one day and find that my buddy had left. I decided we needed to talk about that as well. I didn’t want any unfinished business or regret after it was too late to say a bit more.
We’d all gather on the bed and have a nightly discussion. Each exchange was different, yet the same. I’d start with telling each dog how much they meant to me and how lucky I was to have them in my life. I always thanked them for being in my life today. Sometimes we’d talk about fun times. Sometimes we’d talk about the difficult times. I’d explain the illness and my inability to change the outcome. I’d ask for input on how to spend what time we had left together. Above all, we always ended on a positive note by expressing our mutual love and deep appreciation for each other. I’d then immediately turn out the lights. I found these discussions of great comfort and continued them with Boomer after Beezer passed and later with my new Lab, Coral. It has become our nightly ritual.
My Hope For You
Of course, each journey is unique to the human and the animal. You should follow your instinct and always do what you think is best. What worked for me is nothing more than what worked for me.
I believe that everything happens for a reason and that reason helps me grow. I’m a much better person for the lessons taught by these two black dogs and am so deeply appreciative of our time on earth together. The B Brothers taught me to overcome fear and guilt. Along the way, I realized the abundance of love I showered on my dogs was the same love I withheld from myself.
In retrospect, I found my journey with my B Brothers was never about the body, it was always about the soul. I believe my Labs were sent to earth to teach me lessons I’d never have learned from any other teacher. In this way, our Journey with kidney disease and bone cancer was the most remarkable success story I’ve ever been involved with. A wonderful paradox that I would have missed entirely if I succumbed to fear.
Please be kind to yourself and enjoy today with your pet. You’ll treasure this most special time for the rest of your life.
© Doug Koktavy
Doug & the B Brothers
From my upcoming book on Overcoming Fear and Guilt when Canine Kids Get Sick.
Visit www.DougandtheBBrothers.com for more information.
July 7, 2007